February 20, 2023

Earthquake update from the head of the White Helmets

This update on the earthquake comes from Raed al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets

It has been two weeks since the devastating earthquake struck Syria, causing horror on a scale unlike anything we experienced even in the darkest hours of the Syrian conflict. Over 90,000 people in 189 countries have donated since the earthquake struck, a heartwarming level of support that powers us forwards. That immediately helped us to purchase fuel and repair the equipment needed to shift the rubble and pull people stuck under buildings destroyed by the earthquake.

The men and women of the White Helmets saved almost 3,000 people from the destruction and were present in all 60 affected communities by the earthquake in northwest Syria. They worked around the clock to pull injured people from thousands of collapsed buildings in low temperatures, digging through dangerous aftershocks and under the weight of grief that so many of our own families and neighbors did not survive, including four White Helmets volunteers.

My team has been doing the impossible and I am humbled by their courage and dedication. Over 5,800 people in Syria have died and since Thursday 9th February there have been no survivors trapped under the rubble, but we continue to recover the bodies of the dead so that their families can bury them with dignity. Many of them are children.

Thousands of people have been displaced or left without homes, and now our teams are helping to assess the safety of homes in the area, removing debris and reopening roads, and surveying for unexploded bombs from the war. Our paramedics and women volunteers are touring the shelters to provide health and care to survivors. The work that remains is on a scale we have never seen before, but the generosity of people around the world is going straight to supporting the communities who need it most.

We are the only organization in northwest Syria with the equipment and training to undertake heavy search and rescue and let me be clear: The White Helmets received no support from the United Nations during the most critical moments of the rescue operations. For days our calls to the UN went unheeded and countless lives were needlessly lost. It is shameful that the very system set up to save lives in emergencies left children to die under the rubble as precious minutes and hours passed. In the absence of international aid we were left to do what we could with limited existing equipment and manpower.

As we searched through the rubble of thousands of buildings, it was the local affected communities that helped us most: lending their cars and heavy vehicles to the response, helping to dig, and donating fuel they could have used to keep themselves warm.

The response to this earthquake is a devastating reminder of the world’s indifference towards the suffering of the Syrian people. We have been ignored in the face of countless disasters at the hands of the Assad regime and Russia, and now after a natural disaster. Here, surrounded by heartbreak and devastation, I can only tell you that we did everything we could to save as many lives as possible.